Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Times Stole My Headline

"From Up Here" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, April 9, 2008

Julie White returns to the NY stage after her triumphant (and Tony-winning) performance in "The Little Dog Laughed." It's a triumphant return as the mother of a troubled teen who came close to an act of Columbine proportions. (spoiler alert)

Director Leigh Silverman has assembled an excellent cast including Ms. White as Grace, the mother of Kenny (Tobias Segal) and Lauren (Aya Cash) and one year into her second marriage to Daniel (Brian Hutchison). Kenny is trying to return to some kind of normalcy after being caught with a handgun at school. He can't go anywhere unescorted by an adult and gets his book bag searched at every turn (can't even carry pencils - too weapon-like). With an unscrupulous class-mate assigned as a "mentor," Kate (Jenni Barber) is more interested in him as fodder for her college application essays. Lauren has a dorky suitor in the form of Charlie (Will Rogers). Grace's sister Caroline (Arija Bareikis) drops in for Kenny's birthday from her world travels with the Peace Corps - she's the cool aunt whom Kenny adores. Seeing the havoc of her sister's reality, she ultimately reveals that she's unable to be more than a fun distraction and bolts when Kenny probably needs her most.

As Kenny, Mr. Segal brings us a troubled, confused and vulnerable teen. Conversation requires major effort and expressing himself is nearly impossible. It's a painfully accurate portrait of a teenager in crisis. He provided glimpses of this previously as the Young Man in "Doris to Darlene" at Playwrights Horizons last December.

Ms. Cash's smart-mouthed Lauren is trying to keep a low profile while her family's problems fly around her. She reveals her own vulnerability filtered through the backtalk. She is pursued by Charlie, another callow, yet gawkingly endearing performance by Will Rogers. She treats him like dirt and he keeps coming back for more like a hungry puppy until she finally realizes that despite his feet being crammed permanently in his own mouth, he's a sweet guy she should hang onto.

Mr. Hutchison's Daniel is struggling to keep his new family together. He's a well-meaning, almost noble guy who has a vision of the long-term value of family, despite the fact that his wife's two teenagers treat him like an alien. Coming off initially as almost spineless, he reveals Daniel's layers slowly and tenderly. It's a subtle and tender performance. Ms. Bareikis' Caroline, while appropriately athletic and crunchy, doesn't quite land the discomfort when she realizes that she can't do much more than provide a distraction from Kenny's troubles.

It's Ms. White who once again delivers the goods. Her Grace, at first distracted, well-intended, but seemingly unaware almost dissolves before you. The pain in her eyes as attempt after attempt to connect with her troubled son cuts to the core. Constantly cleaning up, she never finds success. Finally, a literal spilling of milk leads Grace to her breakdown after discovering a neighbor's hired gardener relieving himself in her bushes, she ends up in the same police station that Kenny landed in a few weeks before. From tears to anger to laughter, she gives everything she has - another master class in acting.

Director Silverman keeps the pace moving and the transitions from light to serious are handled with great delicacy. (I did wonder what the symbolism was of having all three female characters shirtless in the first act.) Allen Moyer's sets move from realistic to more suggestive without interrupting the story. Mattie Ullrich's costumes are functional as is Pat Collins' lighting.

Starwatch: Playwright David Henry Hwang in the audience.

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